Turkish marine researcher and conservationist wins the 2017 Whitley Gold Award for his innovative work to protect Turkey’s coastline

May 18, 2017


BLUE is delighted to see that The Whitley Awards is acknowledging an ocean conservationist with its Gold Award.


Zafer Kizilkaya’s achievements are outstanding and should be an example to other marine conservation initiatives in Europe. The Mediterranean Sea is chronically overfished and poorly managed. Mr Kizilkaya has successfully created no-fishing zones around areas crucial for fish reproduction. He has also promoted local, sustainable fisheries and this in turn has led to community management of these marine reserves. BLUE commends Zafer’s hard work and effective approach towards marine conservation.


HRH The Princess Royal will tomorrow present the prestigious Whitley Gold Award worth £50,000, to Zafer Kizilkaya; a 2013 Whitley Award winner, engineer, underwater photographer and marine conservationist from Turkey. The Gold Award is donated by The Friends and Scottish Friends of the Whitley Fund for Nature, and given in recognition of Zafer’s outstanding work to protect Turkey’s marine environment. This work is taking place against the backdrop of mass immigration of over four million refugees from Syria and Iraq and under challenging political and economic circumstances.


Zafer is President of the Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO which aims to conserve Turkey’s marine and coastal ecosystems. He leads a series of projects working with local fishing communities, coastguards and government to promote conservation and sustainable fishing practices. Gökova Bay is one of the most spectacular marine-scapes in the Aegean Sea. Over 200 small scale fishermen depend on the Bay for their livelihood, but the depletion of fish stocks had imposed a serious impact on the local economy. In 2010, following a successful community conservation project led by Zafer and his team, the Turkish government declared six No Fishing Zones (NFZs) to protect fish breeding and nursery grounds. These no-take zones represented the country’s first network of community-managed marine reserves; however, due to the size of the area proper enforcement by the coastguard was difficult and illegal activities commonplace.


Since Zafer won a Whitley Award in 2013, the project has had a profound effect on biodiversity and the local people in the Bay. The coastguard and the Ministry are now actively cooperating and effectively patrolling the reserves. New technology is at the heart of Gökova’s transformation. Zafer and his team have employed a new monitoring system – the first of its kind used in the marine environment. Patrol boats are equipped with specialist police cameras and GPS, allowing Illegal activity to be live streamed to the coastguard so they can respond immediately. The community now keep detailed reports on numbers and species of fish caught – the only Bay to do so in Turkey. They even have a mobile app for recording data!


Zafer has partnered with fishermen to implement more sustainable fishing practices and trawling has been banned in sensitive sites. As a result, fish stocks have
recovered and biomass has risen by 800%. Following a campaign promoting the consumption of invasive species, demand and subsequent fisher income has risen by 400%! Critically Endangered monk seals have recently returned the Bay and sandbar sharks and loggerhead turtles are being regularly sighted – a sign that this once damaged ecosystem is on the road to recovery. With his Whitley Gold Award Zafer will consolidate efforts in Gökova Bay and scale up his successful approach in nearby Fethiye Bay with his project ‘Guardians of the sea: securing and expanding marine reserves along the Turkish coastline’. Zafer’s long term vision is to replicate his work throughout the Mediterranean.


Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Zafer is spearheading novel approaches to marine conservation in Turkey that if brought to scale could deliver benefits across the Mediterranean. It is this vision, Zafer’s application of the best available science, and implementation of practical conservation methods rooted in community and political engagement that make him deserving of the Gold Award.”


Zafer joins an elite group of conservationists that have won the coveted Whitley Gold Award for grassroots conservationists working against tremendous odds in developing countries. After winning a Whitley Award in 2013, Zafer went on to receive additional WFN funding in 2015. The Gold Award celebrates outstanding people achieving significant conservation impact and recognises them with WFN’s top profile and PR prize. Zafer will join the Whitley Award Judging Panel to assist in winner selection and act as mentor to the new Whitley Award winners.


The 2017 Whitley Award winners will be announced at the Ceremony and each receive £35,000 in project funding. The six finalists are:

  • Sanjay Gubbi – Reducing deforestation in Karnataka’s tiger corridors, India
  • Indira Lacerna-Widmann – Partnering with prisoners to safeguard the Critically Endangered Philippine cockatoo
  • Ian Little – Custodians of South Africa’s threatened grassland biodiversity
  • Purnima Barman – Inspiring women to protect Assam’s greater adjutant and its wetland habitat, India
  • Alexander Blanco – Nest protectors: conserving Venezuela’s magnificent harpy eagles as a rainforest flagship
  • Ximena Velez-Liendo – An uphill climb: enabling coexistence Andean bears and farmers in the Bolivian mountains

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